Internet trolls, bullies, abusers and anyone who threatens another person or posts revenge porn images online could face fines of up to $111,000 under new laws proposed for Australia.

The federal government introduced the Online Safety Bill 2021 to parliament in February 2021, heralding the world's toughest take-down laws for online abuse, including new powers to unmask anonymous internet trolls.

Shutting down sharing of terrorist acts and extremist activities online

This bill will give the eSafety Commissioner the power to respond rapidly and block websites that are sharing "crisis events", such as terrorist acts like the Christchurch shooting. This means the commissioner could ask internet service providers to block public access to terrorist or extremely violent content for a limited period of time.

The legislation has now assumed even greater significance after extremist followers of then president Trump used social media to help organise the storming of the US Capitol in Washington in January 2021.

It will be interesting to see whether this proposed legislation could also be used to stifle extremist political language and the spreading of conspiracy theories, such as those of followers of QAnon and anti-vaxxers.

New laws improve protections against harmful online abuse

Cyber abuse is defined in the Bill as material that an ordinary reasonable person could interpret as intending to cause serious harm. Too many people, especially women and girls, have been subjected to online threats and bullying, with sustained online abuse tragically leading to mental breakdowns and suicide.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the proposed legislation would address online abuse constituting "serious harm", such as threats to rape or kill, as well as racist attacks by internet trolls.

However, Mr Fletcher said that the legislation needed to be balanced with freedom of speech and that the provisions would apply only when the abuse is targeted towards particular adults, rather than generalised abuse. (See New legislation to protect Australians against harmful online abuse, Paul Fletcher Media Release, Dec 2020.)

Internet trolls and social media sites could face hefty fines under new legislation

Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter - as well as gaming platforms - will have to erase harmful content within 24 hours, instead of the 48 hours allowed under existing laws protecting children.

The platforms will be forced to monitor data and report what Mr Fletcher called "digital lynch mobs" ganging up on victims.

Mr Fletcher warned that internet trolls could lose their homes if they can't pay $111,000 fines. If corporations such as Twitter allow the abuse to remain on their sites, they could be fined up to $555,000.

"You should not do or say things online that you wouldn't do in the physical world," Mr Fletcher said.

"Don't think you can get away with it and nobody knows who you are, because your identity can be uncovered and you can be subject to action by authorities.''

If you are experiencing any form of online abuse by internet trolls, you should report it at the website of the eSafety Commissioner.

Once the proposed laws are passed, it will be a huge step forward in protecting Australians from harmful cyber abuse.

Anneka Frayne
Criminal law
Stacks Law Firm

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